Rated R for language including some sexual references
2 hours 14 minutes · On Netflix Friday, Sept. 4
Charlie Kaufman is stuck in his head and he can’t get out. Throughout his filmography, from his screenwriting debut Being John Malkovich to his recent directorial effort Anomalisa, he specializes in characters with a fierce inner existence and has captured their internal conflict in a unique way.
Kaufman’s latest work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is his first adaptation since 2002’s Adaptation. But the cerebral writer-director applies his own unmistakable voice to the Iain Reid novel upon which his film is based. Even for a filmmaker who doesn’t exactly traffic in light fare, Kaufman has put together his most challenging movie yet.
We open on a snowy winter afternoon as Jake (Jesse Plemons) picks up his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) in his car so that they can travel to the modest farmhouse where he grew up. The two have been dating only several weeks, yet Jake feels confident enough in the relationship to bring her to see his mom and dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time.
However, we learn through voiceover that Jake’s girlfriend isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the budding “romance,” a sentiment expressed in the film’s opening line that also serves as its title. When the couple arrives at their destination, all seems to be well at first, but peculiarities stack up as the night moves on.
Half of I’m Thinking of Ending Things plays like a remake of Meet The Parents if it were directed by David Lynch, filled with absurdist humor and tricky editing that intentionally jars the audience’s sense of time and space. The other half consists of the couple’s car-confined conversations during a snowstorm, even more philosophical and verbose by comparison. But what unites these two halves is Kaufman’s pervasive sense of existential anxiety paired with a mordantly funny perspective on human nature.
His screenplay, which extensively references works of great thinkers like Pauline Kael and William Wordsworth, is filled with dialogue by characters desperate to make sense of their thoughts and to find their place in a confounding world.
If this all sounds like a heavy meal, that’s because it is. Stretches of the movie make Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, his morose meditation on mortality and failure, seem like a crowd-pleaser by comparison. But where that film ultimately comes together in a relatively satisfying resolution, I’m Thinking of Ending Things spirals even further into obscurity as it reaches its beguiling conclusion.
This is Kaufman’s least accessible film. But it’s being released on Netflix, where millions of viewers will have the opportunity to stream it as many times as it takes to properly decode the knotty narrative. Will audiences be willing to give multiple viewings to such a heady outing?
My gut tells me that many won’t. There will undoubtedly be those who are frustrated enough with the experience to not even make it through one full viewing, which is understandable.
As Kaufman gets further from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his best-regarded and most well-known film, he has gotten more uncompromising and even obstinate in his artistic vision. I wish this time around he had chased the sublime balance of heart and head that he mastered with Sunshine. But even Kaufman’s headier pursuits trump the plethora of braindead content streaming these days.
Deliriously surreal and all-consuming, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a brazen inquisition of the human condition from one of the best in the business.
More new movies this weekend
Opening in theaters is Tenet, the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson about a spy who utilizes time manipulation to prevent World War III.
Available on Disney+ is Mulan, a live-action remake of the 1998 animated film that stars Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen about a young Chinese maiden who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father.
Available to rent on demand is Feels Good Man, a documentary about the creator of the comic character Pepe the Frog who struggles to reclaim control of his creation after it’s repurposed by political activists online.